God’s Law have been used by Christians in three different ways. So when people debate if we should ‘follow the Law’ , it helps to know these categories. This video and post will begin an arc over the next days and weeks where I will lay out some helpful teachings on the Law and sanctification that I have learned over the years—teachings that do not themselves solve the riddle but give us the grammar to have the conversation.
Debating the Law and Obedience
I was a novice in historical theology when someone first asked me my view on the 3rd use of the Law. I think my mouth hung open as I tried to think of something smart to say (nothing smart did come). I was lost. No one had taught me the basic framework of the conversation, much less pressed me for an answer. I found the issue murky: at one point it seemed we were talking about obedience, then freedom, then required good works, then our inability to do good works, then grace, then accountability groups—round and round. This tension—if we want to call it that—is of course part of the New Testament. So those asking me my opinion were not obscurantists. Still I needed some help.
My first love in historical research was the Reformation, and thankfully this is one of the most important eras to discuss the Law, justification, and sanctification. So where do we begin?
For me, the question must start with defining what the Law is for Christians. How is it used? If we are no longer ‘under Law’, yet not free to live as Corinthians, how do we apply the Law to our lives? Does any attempt to obey the Law make us legalists?
What is important to realize at the outset—something I wish I had known when I was younger—is that when people debate the Law they are discussing only one use of the Law. They are not discussing the Law itself, per se, but rather one application of the Law that some find troubling.
The issue, then, raises the question of the ‘Three Uses of the Law’. Two uses of the Law are shared by all Protestants, one has been debated ever since.
The Uses of the Law
The Law is described as having three uses: Civil, Gospel, and Christian living. What can confuse anyone, though, is that at times these categories are named differently, numbered differently, or taught differently. Problems only compound when we confuse the categories. But the categories are not all that complex. When I teach it in seminary classes, I always use these analogies:
Civil Use of the Law (1st use): God’s Law is a Bridle, restraining sin
This one tends to make everyone scratch their head. But the basics here are that society in medieval and Reformation times had no qualms about seeing God’s Law as a basic framework for governing society. This is, of course, before Americans threw tea into Boston Harbor and separated Church and State. But it was natural for Luther or Calvin to assume a place for the Law in restraining sin. Laws against thievery, murder, drunkenness, etc. were not based on the will of the people but on the governing principles of biblical law.
There are still echoes of the 1st Use of the Law today. An example could be Chick Fil-A choosing to close their stores on Sundays—and doing so because God’s Law requires Sabbath rest. If you’ve ever found yourself hungry for a chicken sandwich after church, you may find yourself wondering why Chick Fil-A is living ‘under Law’ like this.
But Chick-Fil-A doesn’t believe everyone who works there is a Christian, or that by closing on Sundays they are saving souls. So the 1st Use has nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with salvation. At no point in society was the 1st Use of the Law described as an part of salvation. It was a bridle, a restraint. The 1st Use of the Law was the tide wall holding society back from the brink of anarchy.
No Protestant tradition differed on this issue.
Gospel Use (2nd Use): The Law is a mirror that shows us our sin, pointing us to Christ
No one blames the mirror when you’re ugly. A mirror exists simply to reflect the true nature of the person looking into it. In this sense, the 2nd Use of the Law is a mirror—which is what Paul is getting at in Romans. The Law confronts us, shows us our sin, exposes our faults, and removes any doubt that we are under the curse of the covenant. It tells us we need Jesus to bear our sins.
This is the fundamental message of the Gospel. We all strive to cover the shame of our sins, but the net result is not righteousness but hypocrisy. We end up contented that our dirty clothes are not as filthy as our neighbor—or we even convince ourselves that we are keeping the Law.
Good preaching of the Law has always been about holding up the mirror. Show everyone their faults, make everyone uncomfortable (including the pastor) with the nature of their delusions of self-righteousness. Then take them to the cross.
No Protestant tradition has questioned the 2nd Use of the Law.
Christian Living Use (3rd use): The Law is a flashlight, used by Christians to know the path ahead
It is this 3rd use that gets everyone flustered. And rightly so, in some cases, though at times there is an element of confusion at work. But it’s central motif is that of a flashlight, used to light our way.
The 3rd Use of the Law, then, focuses not on the Gospel but on the Christian life. After conversion do Christians move away from the sting of the Law, away from its judgments? If they do, can they ever pursue the Law as a disciple in a way that does not collapse everything back into self-righteousness?
There are a number of issues at play here, but I will name two right now. First, those who embrace the 3rd use often have in mind some renovation of the will in believers. This renovation is wrought by the Spirit and frees the disciple to love the Law because they truly find freedom from its burden. Second, there is typically language of adoption at play in those who embrace the 3rd use of the Law—a pivotal idea that we have been adopted and so begin to see the Law not as our legal guilt but as the loving expression of God as to how to live in this world. Put simply, they say we leave the courtroom for the Household of God.
Those who reject the 3rd use almost always stress that we can never be confronted with the Law in a way that does not provoke in us the fear of eternal condemnation. The Law works in such a way that it always condemns us. This was, essentially, Luther’s position: our will is always terrified by the Law, so even if we embrace the cross and grace, we are simply too fragile to ever see anything but the mirror, exposing our sins. If we strive to embrace these demands, we end up left to our own works. We then doubt our salvation, cover our sins, and confess none of our faults. We become the older brother, looking down on all these prodigal sons.
So the debate over the Law is focused, not on the Gospel itself, but on the issues of the will and how the Law is to be preached. Luther would have had no issue with someone reading the Bible and attempting to live faithfully by the spontaneous work of God in their heart. He was not an Antinomian. But what Luther stresses—along with all opponents to the 3rd use—is that if we attempt to preach the 3rd use we always foul it up. We always fool ourselves. This is shared by many Luther-influenced evangelicals today, who fear that too much of a focus on adoption life and God’s Law must always, by necessity, end up making us deny the Gospel.
You might say that Luther feared trying anything but Law-Gospel in the 2nd use. Urge Christians to any form of obedience, and you might have only two results: some will believe they are obeying the Law and grow smug; others will feel utterly lost as to how to clean themselves up enough for Jesus. For Luther, the 3rd use was always dangerous, but especially in preaching. Instead, he would rather preach the Law as a mirror, point them to Jesus, and then leave the rest to the spontaneous work of the Spirit.